If there’s anything that 9/11 offered us, it was opportunity for self-examination. Not that all of us need such a thing, but I’m confident that from Sept 12, 2001 till date, American introspection has grown significantly. And it’s no surprise that we find a novel written within that post 9/11 introspection. What’s a little surprising is that it’s written by an Irishman who writes for the New Yorker occasionally. It has been short-listed for the Booker Prize and Netherland, to be sure, is a viable candidate for the award, but what’s more interesting is figuring out exactly what kind of novel it is. In fact, its most serious flaw is arguably that you’re not quite sure exactly which story forms the narrative’s heart. Is it an immigrant tale, as James Wood reads it in his New Yorker review? He and others like Manish over at Ultrabrown focus on Netherland as an immigrant story, particularly on the character of Chuck Ramkissoon. Ramkissoon, aside from being an embodiment of the American Dream (and not a particularly novel one at that) occupies perpetually the background of the book and is Hans’ anchor during the breakdown of his marriage, his interest in work, and the dislocation that 9/11 caused.
It’s easy to read into Netherland the trope of the American Dream shattered, and O’Neill, who uses cricket as a way of revitalizing this theme, manages it artfully. Yes, cricket as metaphor is subject to the limitations of the all too easy sports analogy, but O’Neill is too good of a writer to wander down that road. Instead, he brings cricket into the realm of the soul. Take this comment about the immigrant cricket batsmen he plays with:
They could, and did, modify their batting without spiritual upheaval. I could not.
This is, to my mind, the fundamental difference between the first two generations of immigrants. That initial leap of faith in the American Dream, whether it be via plane, boat or foot, did no damage to those making it. The damage, the spiritual upheaval, is borne by the seconds, the children, those for whom the left-behind language and traditions were as alien to them as their parents’ lives. Hans is caught in that second generation as a transplanted Dutchman who, unlike the first generation, have the luxury of looking back, of worrying about concepts like “identity.” The first generation made a leap of faith — it’s time to move forward always. Hans can’t. He’s got a foot permanently in the crease.
Netherland is full of the kind of writing that veers tantalizingly close to being overwrought in places, but manages to remain on this side of brilliance. It is lush without being overgrown. In particular, I loved the descriptions of Hans’ moments of solitude:
Random mental commotions of this kind constantly agitated me during this period, when I was in the habit, among other strange habits, of lying on the floor of my living room and staring into the space under my brown armchair, a letter-box shaped crevice out of which, I may have hoped, an important communication would come.
O’Neill has hit on a truth: we all lie on the floor from time to time. Maybe it replaces gazing to the stars for the meaning of the universe, I don’t know, but the view of furniture across the tops of synthetic fibers has always hypnotized me.
The book’s power fundamentally rests, though, in Hans’ self-assessments and his awareness of his state of mind, and it’s the husband-wife relationship between Hans and Rachel that O’Neill chooses to structure the book around. Below is a long passage where Hans describes in painful detail “one of those planned conversations that go quickly awry,” (with Rachel), for it is exacting in its detail and helplessness:
And it happened again, one of those planned conversations that go quickly awry, that leave you alone with rage, a clarifying rage in this instance, in which it all came back in a harsh light: our fading marriage, the two New York years in which she withheld from me all kisses on the mouth, withheld these quietly and steadily and without complaint, averting her eyes whenever mine sought them out in emotion, all the while cultivating a dutiful domesticity and maternal ethic that armored her in blamelessness, leaving me with no way to approach her, no way to find fault or feelings, waiting for me to lose heart, to put away my most human wants and expectations, to carry my burdens secretly, she not once in my mourning mentioning my mother, even that time when I wept in the kitchen and dropped a bottle of beer on the floor out of pure sorrow. She merely wiped the floor with paper towels and said nothing, brushing her free hand against my shoulder blade — my shoulder blade! — as she carried the soaked paper to the trash can, never holding me fast, refraining not out of lack of humanity but out of fear of being drawn into a request for further tenderness, a request that could only bring her face-to-face with some central revulsion, a revulsion of her husband or herself or both, a revulsion that had come from nowhere, or from her, or perhaps from something I’d done or failed to do, who knew, she didn’t want to know, it was too great a disappointment, far better to get on with the chores, with the baby, with the work, far better to leave me to my own devices, as they say, to leave me to resign myself to certain motifs, to leave me to disappear guiltily into a hole of my own digging. When the time came to stop her from leaving I did not know what to think or wish for, her husband who was now an abandoner, a hole-dweller, a leaver who had left her to fend for herself, as she said, who’d failed to provide her with the support and intimacy she needed, she complained, who was lacking some fundamental wherewithal, who no longer wanted her, who beneath his scrupulous marital motions was angry, whose sentiments had decayed into a mere sense of responsibility, a husband who, when she shouted, “I don’t need to be provided for! I’m a lawyer! I make two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year! I need to be loved!” had silently picked up the baby and smelled the baby’s sweet hair, and had taken the baby for a crawl in the hotel corridor, and afterwords washed the baby’s filthy hands and soft filthy knees, and thought about what his wife had said, and saw the truth in her words and an opening, and decided to make another attempt at kindness, and at nine o’clock, with the baby finally drowsy in his cot, came with a full heart back to his wife to find her asleep, as usual, and beyond waking.
In short, I fought off the impulse to tell Rachel to go fuck herself. I produced some remark about Jake which we both might cling to, and for a minute or two we did this, and then I went back to my son.
It’s heart-rendering because it’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel and said so frequently, “God that’s my life.”
I wasn’t haunted by Netherland, but it does leave you feeling a sense of loss, whether it’s the America we once knew or the person you once were, and it’s this that has led some to describe the book as a bridge between America’s 20th and 21st centuries. Like most immigrant journeys and every good relationship, there are always bridges to be built.